Johnny's Reviews > Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer
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It is very clear that Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons is heavily colored by a Lake Geneva-centric perspective. That makes sense. It is, after all, a biography of E. Gary Gygax. At times, the book was a marvelous source of anecdotal insight to the early days of Dungeons & Dragons while, at other times, it seemed rather sophomoric in style. I was particularly unamused by the conceit of beginning each chapter with a supposed Dungeon Master refereeing a thinly veiled incident in Gary’s life. Of course, as an editor, I’ve published conceits that were just as lame (or more so) than this one (Remember my pseudonymous “The Rumor Bag” or Charles Ardai’s “Titans of the Game Industry?” in Computer Gaming World.). It’s just that I feel like that conceit was so thirty years ago. That could be just me, but it reduced my rating for this book.

My second problem with the book was the cavalier marginalizing of Dave Arneson’s contribution to the game. I’m almost as biased here toward Dave as Michael Witwer is toward Gary. I say, “almost” because I recognize the truth in a statement like “…although Arneson had great ideas, he didn’t seem to be able to put the pieces together. This is where Gary proved to be most valuable.” (p. 92, Loc 1309) Dave did some writing for me when I was at Computer Gaming World and I know that he was not the most prompt contributor in the world. I remember being amazed that someone as famous for his writing could make so many grammatical errors. As I realized how thorough his reviews were (He played one game more than 50 times that I thought exhausted its possibilities in a half-dozen tries—a political simulation called Hidden Agenda), I wrote off the missed deadlines and grammatical errors as being as irrelevant as a medical doctor’s handwriting. It became a joy just to shape his work into an orderly presentation.

But, nothing in working with Dave ever gave me the feeling that he simply sat on his hands with regard to game design. He was always demonstrating his creativity. Certainly, he told me specifically about his legal experiences with TSR—twice litigating for what he considered to be his fair share of royalties. I’m pretty sure he resented a lot of the Gary-centric aspects of TSR. One of the things I remember him saying was, “I like to think I’m the ‘father’ of D&D and Gary is the ‘mother.’” I got the feeling that he meant ‘muthah’ and intended me to fill in the last part of it. I can just hear Dave saying, “It was very much a case of me providing various ideas and concepts but not having any say as to how they were used.” (p. 100, Loc. 1413)

Please forgive the rant, but I just don’t believe the game would have happened in any sort of playable form if it hadn’t been for both of these creators. Gary may have taken control for obvious reasons, but he was building on a firm foundation. Without ideas from Wesley, Carr, and Arneson, we probably wouldn’t have role-playing as a genre in either the table-top or digital form. That being said, I learned a lot from this book—something I didn’t think possible after reading that exhaustive tome, Playing at the World (which I felt was much more even-handed in presenting its research, but it wasn’t a biography of either creator).

I didn’t realize that the United States government had sent a pair of undercover Army Intelligence agents to check out Gary’s miniatures group because they thought combat simulation games were a breeding ground for real-life insurgency (p. 79, Loc 1127). And, though I remember Dave saying that they didn’t use “funny dice” (polyhedral) until later in the process, I don’t remember reading about Gary’s coffee can with the twenty (20) numbered poker chips as the random number generator before (p. 87, Loc 1243). I did remember the folks at Flying Buffalo being very careful not to make any comparisons with Dungeons & Dragons when they spoke/wrote about either Tunnels & Trolls, Monsters, Monsters or even the later modern RPG masterpiece, Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes. Apparently, they coined the phrase fantasy role-playing game after TSR threatened to litigate over “copyright infringement” when their early advertisements for Tunnels & Trolls mentioned Dungeons & Dragons (p. 128, Loc. 1766). I was glad to be reminded of this when I read Empire of Imagination.

I was somewhat surprised to read about Gary’s supposed claim that he had seen the potential in computer role-playing early on, but hadn’t had the technology or financial support to be able to invest in it (p. 203, Loc. 4846). That confused me, considering that TSR published a computer version of Dawn Patrol (aka Fight in the Skies) in the early ‘80s and Dave Arneson had published computer games like Chennault’s Flying Tigers on the Atari 8-bit as early as the late ‘70s. Dave Wesely, the referee who discovered Strategos, the 19th century rules set which inspired his Brauenstein adventure, was a partner in 4D Interactive with Arneson. So, it was possible to produce such games at a relatively low cost. I suspect that Gary just wanted to make sure he controlled his digital games after seeing how easy it was to lose control of the tabletop game. But that’s a different story. I was just surprised to read: “Gary had seen this potential in CRPGs since the late 1970s, and early issues of Dragon magazine had even featured an ongoing column about computer technology called The Modern Eye, but TSR had not been positioned technically or financially to invest in such a radical industry at the time. Now, the technology had caught up with the concept, and Gary had the capacity and desire to pursue it with full force.” (p.203, Loc 2823)

My biggest surprise, however, was to discover that after hearing stories about Gary’s prodigal years in Hollywood (from some very good sources, by the way), I was able to read: “’All I am is another fellow human that has at last, after many wrong paths and failed attempts, found Jesus Christ,’ he wrote in January…signing the email with his favorite Bible verse, Matthew 5:16.” (p. 218, Loc 3023) I knew that Dave had that conviction; it was nice to read that Gary did. How ironic that is in the light of all the accusations of Satanic worship leveled at the game over the years. Well, this is just a summary of my reaction to the book. I really liked reading about Gary’s early years and his friendship with Don Kaye, as well as reading about the Lorraine Williams era from his family’s perspective. The book was worth its price in spite of all my rants and self-indulgent observations. I have a personal investment in this history, having been the publisher of both Dragon and Dungeon at one time. Ironically, I can say that both Gary and Dave “worked for me” at one time (as freelancers for my magazines…chuckle).
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 22, 2015 – Finished Reading
November 6, 2015 – Shelved
November 6, 2015 – Shelved as: biography
November 6, 2015 – Shelved as: history

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Nicholas Siebers Great to hear from someone who knows more of the story! Thanks!

message 2: by Richard (new)

Richard Was wondering how much coverage and credit Dave Arneson received in the book Thanks for mentioning this.

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